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Striking teachers rally in Vancouver this week, angered by such comments as ‘it’s all about money – it’s never about the quality of education’ from their Premier.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's education system may seem like it's in the summer doldrums. But don't be fooled: Behind the scenes, the noise is building around teacher negotiations.

A majority government for Kathleen Wynne bodes well for teachers and the upcoming contract talks, as the Liberal government's education policies are a more palatable option than the Progressive Conservatives and their job-cutting platform. But as teachers and support staff head into negotiations, resentment lingers and could potentially throw a wrench into talks. This is, after all, the same party that imposed contract terms on teachers, cut their pay and caused chaos in the school system less than two years ago.

There are two options facing the current government: Stick with a hard-lined approach and risk another year of turmoil in the school system, or tinker with the education budget and give a little.

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Teacher union leaders have indicated that if the government looks to strip their collective agreements, as the Liberals have done previously, they won't remain silent.

The problem is the government is grappling with a $12.5-billion deficit, and deputy premier Deb Matthews' central task is to get public-sector unions, including teachers, to accept pay freezes and to temper their expectations. She has already said that her government is prepared to stare down unions, and it's not going to be "lollipops and rainbows."

That could spell trouble. Teachers lost wages through unpaid days in the last contract, when the Liberals under Ms. Wynne's predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, imposed Bill 115, legislation that infringed on collective bargaining rights and restricted their ability to strike. Teachers stopped leading extracurricular activities in protest, and staged walkouts.

"My members have an expectation of real improvements," Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, told The Globe and Mail. "We are expecting a fair and reasonable deal." In May, the OSSTF approved a levy that will bolster its strike fund and provide three-quarters pay in the event of a strike.

The school year could avoid the disruption of a labour dispute, however, if the government were to ease its hard-lined stance.

There is some indication from Education Minister Liz Sandals that a wage increase for educators is not out of the realm of possibility. She told reporters last month that while there is no increase to the overall education budget, if all sides can find savings elsewhere, teachers and education support workers could see a bump in pay.

Educators in Ontario are keeping an eye on the situation in Saskatchewan, where teachers have rejected a second tentative contract offer with the government because even though it contained wage increase, the offer did not have sufficient resources and did not address their concerns. And in British Columbia, a bitter dispute between teachers and the provincial government drags on through the summer, as a second mediator turned down a request to help settle the situation.

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Teacher contracts in Ontario are up at the end of August.

All sides – government, school boards, and unions – are hopeful that the new bargaining process will avoid the turmoil of what happened in the last round. Under the new process, the government, provincial unions and school board associations will negotiate big monetary issues, such as salaries and benefits, centrally. Bargaining on local issues, such as teachers' workload, access to technology, and training, will take place between individual school boards and their unions.

The government has received notices to bargain from the teachers' unions. Although dates have not been scheduled for initial meetings, a spokeswoman for Ms. Sandals said the government expects discussions to begin mid-August.

The issue is whether Ms. Wynne and her team want to extend some goodwill to teachers, many of whom are still skeptical of the current government after Bill 115, or risk a situation similar to B.C.'s.

Caroline Alphonso reports on education from Toronto.

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